October 29, 2006

MODESTY BLAISE (1966) - a goofed spy spoof

(1966, UK)

A mute recommendation...

(Updated September 2010 - out on DVD in the UK)

I really wish this was good, but it always disappoints. It fits into two sub-genres of the sixties that I really enjoy. Lightweight comedy spy flicks - the ones that Austin Powers movies reference – like Our Man Flint and Casino Royale (1967), and also comic strip adaptions - a more varied bunch than the endless Marvel Comics franchises that we’re choking on at the moment - like Batman, Barbarella and Danger: Diabolik.

Unfortunately Modesty Blaise is the least watchable in both camps, despite having enough talent to have made it the best. With Joseph Losey directing, one expects daring and gritty dramas. The Servant, King and Country and Accident (all also starring Dirk Bogarde) are all heralded British films that critics agree are the work of a quality auteur. But they forget to mention Losey’s disastrous lapses with Modesty Blaise and Boom! (possibly Elizabeth Taylor’s worst movie).

Monica Vitti as Modesty uncannily looks the part, is devastatingly glamorous and a natural comedy actress to boot. Terence Stamp was at his sexiest too. Dirk Bogarde is blond arch-villain Gabriel, Clive Revill has a dual role as his book-keeping sidekick and an Arab sheik…

To digress for a second – it’s sad when talented actors are hot one moment and then dropped the next. Clive Revill was great in comedies, often playing Russians, and could hold his own as a lead (The Legend of Hell House) but disappeared Stateside to do TV and still does high profile voiceover work in animation. I guess his turn as the voice of the Emperor in The Empire Strikes Back changed his life.

Michael Craig too, here playing an MP being twisted around Modesty’s little finger, was a familiar face in sixties movies. He lead the castaways in Mysterious Island, but his film career was buried alive with Vault of Horror (1973), and he’s been working on stage and TV ever since.

So, Modesty Blaise - the cast is good, what’s wrong with the film? I’d say that the director was extremely condescending about adapting a 'comic strip'. So much so, that he refuses to take the characters, the premise or any of the action seriously. Most of the fights are played for comedy, especially the climactic battle. Losey seems to lose interest whenever the plot is involved, instead pushing the camera towards close-ups of pop culture fads, fashions and furniture, while making in-jokes, most of which we don’t get.

Losey’s humorous touches may have been warranted if they’d been funny. Only the occasional black comedy works, and it’s especially sadistic, even for James Bond. The scene where Gabriel’s ‘wife’, Mrs Fothergill, silently tortures a mime, and the use of a dead body to counterweight an escape down a cliff, are both grimly amusing.

Apart from Johnny Dankworth’s theme tune, the music is ill-chosen and rarely complements the mood or the action, instead being used to amuse. The monk serenading Gabriel on the church organ, as he arrives on his island, seems to go on forever. The cacophony of barrel-organs during the Amsterdam knife fight is totally distracting. The songs that Vitti and Stamp are required to sing are just embarrassing.

Maybe with different music, a different edit (too long at two hours) and tighter post-synching, this could have been, should have been, a whole lot better. Though the groovy sets and fashions make this an excellent choice to play in the background at a party, but with the sound down! An odd recommendation, I know.

Mostly shot on location in Amsterdam and Naples, particularly spectacular are Gabriel’s clifftop monastery (actually in Sicily, I believe) and the un-exciting car chase up and down the winding roads of Mount Vesuvius (which is where I've just been and why I watched this again).

The Region 1 DVD (from 20th Century Fox) has absolutely no frills or notes, but is presented anamorphic widescreen 1.85 for the first time. The mono and stereo audio tracks sound a little dull, which is very apt.

Modesty's creator wrote the movie tie-in novel, launching the comic strip heroine as a successful literary character - the best thing that came of the film!

October 28, 2006

J.S.A. JOINT SECURITY AREA (2000) North and South

(2000, South Korea, IMDB title: Gongdong gyeongbi guyeok JSA)
Thai Region 3 PAL DVD

Like many fans of South East Asian cinema, I'm more than impressed with director Chan-Wook Park's 'vengeance trilogy'. So while I keenly await his next film Cyborg OK (the trailers are already online), I've just watched the film whose success enabled him to make Sympathy For Mr Vengeance.

A poster for Chan-Wook Park's next film - I'm A Cyborg, But That's OK
Joint Security Area isn't as outrageous stylistically or narratively as Oldboy or Lady Vengeance, being a fairly straightforward murder mystery. But there are some directorial flourishes and a offbeat dark humour that indicate the direction he would soon take. Set in the neutral no-go area between North and South Korea, a shooting incident leaves two soldiers dead and two wounded survivors - one from each country.

A Dutch investigator, fluent in Korean, is brought in by the neutral peace-keeping force to determine exactly what happened. In prolonged flashbacks we learn about the lives of the men in the months leading up to the fateful night - a scenario the authorities hadn't anticipated...

The director manages to play both sides here, delivering a violent, occasionally bloody thriller to demonstrate an anti-violence theme. The film also attempts to counter the demonisation of North Koreans as seen by the South. For an international audience, there's enough exposition to get everyone up to speed with a brief history of the country's division - certainly very relevant at the moment. Other recent Korean films braving the subject, like Ki-Duk Kim's The Coast Guard (2002), expected the audience to know their history.

The main strength of the film is the performances - the leading members of the cast all returned to appear in Park's subsequent films. The investigating officer in J.S.A. is played by Lady Vengeance herself, Yeong-ae Lee. The North Korean officer is Kang-ho Song, Mr Vengeance, also a familiar face in cult Korean films such as The Quiet Family, Memories of Murder, and this year's blockbuster The Host. The other soldiers in 'the incident' are played by Ha-kyun Shin, also from Sympathy for Mr Vengeance, and Byung-hun Lee, the lead in Park' s contribution to
Three: Extremes.

The only distraction in the film were the western actors with English-speaking parts, but thankfully they are not in many scenes. The film is otherwise very satisfying on many levels - beautifully shot, cleverly written, with an excellent cast. It maintains quite a grip throughout, because we know where the story leads... but not how it happened. It's quite hard to categorise in terms of genre, and different scenes could be war, mystery, comedy, thriller, or drama. Once again, I'd recommend this over many Hollywood films, but it's only going to be seen by those who can cope with subtitles.

This Thai DVD (pictured at top) is 2.35 anamorphic widescreen, with DTS and 5.1 audio. There's a trailer included and some behind-the-scenes footage. The English subtitles are OK, but occasionally mis-timed. Thankfully, the film has also been released in many other countries on DVD, including the UK and the US.
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October 27, 2006

Holiday reading: In defence of pulp

Why pay for the latest page-turner when you've still got pulp in the attic?

Took some 1960's pulp fiction on holiday with me, including this one, Juggernaut by 'Bron Fane' (surely a pseudonym). The evocative cover art accurately depicts the opening chapters of the book – a mile high humanoid is flying around the galaxy, tearing open the life-support domes of human colonists, flattening their buildings and knocking over their huge 'computors' ('electronic brains'). The abundance of dated British sixties slang, still in use in the 29th century, is as amusing as the prose, which is so badly written, even I noticed.

I only mention this because despite being true 'pulp' and obviously written in a rush, it was still very readable. Juggernaut kept me going to the very last page. Crucially, the story was pretty unusual, maybe not for a comic book or manga, but unusual stuff in prose. To me, if the story is interesting, I’ll suffer many shortcomings and still enjoy it.

This of course goes for films too. If there’s one element in a trashy movie that you can enjoy – a favourite actor, some background music, even a ‘look’ of an outdated film stock – it just takes one redeeming feature to make it still watchable. Even if the film bombed, or was critically panned, or your mates have never heard of it... unknown films can still warrant extensive pleasure. I just wouldn’t necessarily recommend trying to inflict these ‘pleasures’ on your friends…

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October 11, 2006

THE CASTLE OF CAGLIOSTRO (1979) new DVD special edition

(1979, Lupin III: Cagliostro No Shiro)
Region 1 NTSC DVD

(from Manga Entertainment)

Hiyao Miyazaki to the rescue

Like many western fans, my interest in anime really started with Akira. But the anime that followed in the west, were sold primarily on the basis of sex and violence. For a short time, this strategy worked, but such cynical marketing had a negative effect. It quashed the possibility of getting a wider audience for subsequent releases of anime feature films or TV.

Public consensus still misunderstands anime as being dominated by half-naked schoolgirls and extreme violence, whereas in reality it is as varied in tone as any fiction-based, live-action TV. Besdies anime for the very young, there’s sci-fi, horror, romcoms… all genres for all ages. The controversial stuff was only in a tiny minority of releases.

Akira did lead to an interest in what else Japanese animation had to offer, with a focus on other adult sci-fi anime series. But this didn’t rise above the level of ‘cult’ and enter into the mainstream. Subesequent releases like Ghost in the Shell and Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within didn't cause the same stir as Akira.

Recently, some of the most intricate, ground-breaking animated movies in the world have had terribly half-hearted cinema releases, and been overlooked by critics. Astonishing films like Appleseed, Innocence (Ghost in the Shell 2) and ironically Steam Boy (director Katsuhiro Otomo's first feature since Akira) have snuck out into cinemas without finding an audience. These are titles with challenging plots, predictive sci-fi, hugely entertaining action... that are often dumped straight onto video.

Admittedly, the west has got a lot of readjusting to do – in Japan the adult consumption of manga has removed the stigma of ‘cartoons’. At least we’re finally appreciating the films of Hiyao Miyazaki. Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle herald a new wave of anime that has found a mainstream audience. This has lead to a demand for the twenty year back-catalogue of animated films from Studio Ghibli. Indeed, in France, these older films are getting re-releases in the cinema, not just on DVD.

So here I am still working my way through Miyazaki’s older films – having been introduced to his work with the theatrical release of Princess Mononoke. The latest I’ve seen is The Castle of Cagliostro. A 1979 feature film made at the time when Miyazaki was moving from TV work into cinema.

For copyright reasons, it’s been obscured that the film is all about the characters from the long-running Lupin III series of manga and TV. Arch-criminal Lupin, is the grandson of Arsene Lupin of French literature, here embarking on an epic adventure with his usual accomplices, somewhere in Central Europe.

After raiding a casino, Lupin notices that rather than being incredibly rich, he merely has a carful of counterfeit cash. He decides to pursue the fake notes back to their source – the royal castle in a small duchy - Cagliostro. As he gets near, he encounters a very young bride, trying to escape the castle, and his mission suddenly becomes far more complicated and dangerous than he had ever imagined…

Even in 1979, Miyazaki has to walk a precarious tightrope between providing a family film, and being faithful to the bawdy violence of the original manga, which portrayed Lupin as a ‘ladykiller’. While there’s action, a little slapstick and some exaggerated face-pulling to please younger viewers, there’s also a little blood, lots of gun-play, a little swearing, an under-age wedding, and several characters smoking like chimneys! Like Spielberg begging the censors not to cut Jaws and Indiana Jones movies, Miyazaki has to push boundaries to keep both audiences happy.

Miyazaki and his crew also try to achieve the best animation they can. They never shy away from ambitious 'camera moves' – like point-of-view shots, or complicated tracking shots. Complex three-dimensional objects like the auto-gyro or the workings of the clock-tower would have to have been realised without the aid of computers. The results is so successful, that it's hard to guess what year it was made, the animation looks so advanced.

But the production doesn’t show off, it all serves the story. One that could equally have worked as live-action, and has been ‘laid out’ as if it were. The famous car chase is shot as if they had photographed from 'camera cars'. It’s an exciting scene, as well as funny for using tiny little French cars, rather than flashy sports models.

I was also very impressed with the the endless inventiveness in the castle buildings’ many hidden secrets. Lupin has to face underwater traps, impossible wall-climbs, crowds of ninja assassins and high tech defences. The look of the various background layouts also indicate that Miyazaki’s team must have at least done extensive picture research of Central Europe - I wouldn't be surprised that they actually visited.

Miyazaki only includes a little bit of politics in the story, and there’s very little subtext like his usual scripts. Cagliostro is a purely entertaining adventure with plenty of humour.

Also, despite an all human cast, the style of character animation is not his usual naturalistic approach, but uses exaggerated 'cartoony' actions in keeping with the humour, and in line with the manga characterisations.

This Manga Entertainment DVD release is notable for a spotless transfer that makes the film look brand new. Only the occasional original animation faults (like a frame shift, or slightly rough-edged drawings), date the animation at all. The picture aspect is 1.85 anamorphic, like it’s original presentation.

There’s a 5.1 mix for the english soundtrack, as well as the original Japanese audio (which is what I listened to). The english subtitles take great pains to translate the jokes and the slang. My only criticism of the set is that the Japanese mix isn’t 5.1 and that the cover art doesn’t do the beautiful and intricate art of the animation any favours at all – it makes it look like a soppy romance, rather than a gothic James Bond adventure.

This is a flipper disc with the entire film on one side and special features on the other. There are storyboards, and an interview with the animation director, (who also worked on the first Lupin III TV anime), and a trailer for the original Japanese movie release.

If only we’d had Miyazaki films in the west 25 years ago, when they were released in Japan. He’d have given anime a good name!

Do you want to know more?

There are many Lupin III manga and anime, including more feature films. It's another huge Japanese subject to investigate...

Of course the original 'Arsene Lupin' is an anti-hero of French literature, and has been filmed many times though the years, including a big-budget French action film in 2004.

The real-life Cagliostro family of Italy is a tale in itself...

Wikipedia is a good place to start…

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